Stigma (Often) Begins At Home

By Susan

‘Drama queen’, ‘attention seeker’, ‘too emotional’, ‘easily offended’, ‘cry baby’; Those are just a few terms I heard growing up. I did not know how to express myself without feeling judged by those closest to me. Therefore, from an early age, I learned to put a lid on it. 

My first suicide attempt, at age 11, was never discussed. I was diagnosed with cerebral malaria. To this day, I have no idea how. I’d taken two handfuls of pills and everyone in the house knew but no one questioned the doctor’s diagnosis. Perhaps they were trying to protect me. I do not know. The only person who came forward told me, ‘I know what you did, don’t even do it again.’ That was the end of it. I found solace in books and writing and another cringeworthy practice - self harming. I’d burn myself or use a razor to cut myself and cover things up pretty well. This, at least for a while, seemed to keep my emotions in check. I have numerous scars everywhere. I tell people I was a tomboy. I was but that is not the reason why I have so many physical scars.

I recall writing numerous suicide notes, expressing my feelings in detail and leaving them for my mother to find and I was told to stop being dramatic. For instance, in another failed attempt, my mother got extremely upset and told me to use something stronger next time and get it right. What’s a 15 year old supposed to do with that? 

It should not be a surprise that I started to self medicate to manage my feelings. I was content being hazy, emotionally numb, just floating through life. I used to be fun and funny but at some point I was just existing - going through the motions, doing the bare minimum of what was expected of me.  When I started having panic attacks, I confided in a close relative and she laughed and told me those were ‘white people problems’. In trying to find the reason for my constant hyperventilating, breathlessness and all that comes with panic attacks, I was taken to a few hospitals to find the source of my problem. I saw every specialist my mother could afford (I suppose at this point it was getting quite serious) and they all told her the same thing; ‘let your daughter see a psychiatrist as there is absolutely nothing wrong with her physically.’ Her response was that her daughter was not a crazy person and therefore had no business seeing a psychiatrist. Of course I was depressed and suicidal and genuinely scared to be alive but I was not supposed to be. It just did not happen. I’m supposed to be a strong black woman. Eventually she agreed for me to see a clinical psychologist. It took a while for her to break me. Even when she did, nobody else in the family knew about it. No one knew I’d seen a psychologist. I continued to self medicate even after diagnosis, at this point it was like second nature to me. 

Sometimes I wonder if I would have been a different person had I been diagnosed earlier. I would like to help other people dealing with the same problem but I have often been asked about the effect that would have on my family. So I am shut down again. How can I help?